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 V.13 No.34 | August 19 - 25, 2004 

Ortiz y Pino

A Nation Behind Bars

Flushing tax dollars down the cosmic toilet

The Bernalillo County Commission is facing a major financial crunch brought on by the spiffy new jail on the outskirts of town. The facility has been in operation for scarcely one year, yet is bulging at the seams, its capacity of 2,500 inmates (a 1,000 more than the old jail's) already reached.

The drain on the public treasury which that enormous complex represents is one which governments all over the nation are faced with: the fiscal coming-home-to-roost of this country's insane criminal justice policy and our practically exclusive reliance on jail as a response to crime.

For 30 years we have been bull-headedly on a path of self-destruction, building prisons and jails of every conceivable design with a single-mindedness and fury that I only wish we had used to build schools and hospitals. Our return on investment would have been much better if we had.

Instead, we have now reached the point where 3.2 percent of all Americans are either in jail or on probation or parole, a staggering 6.9 million of our citizens! That is a 400 percent increase in our criminal population during the past 25 years, a span in which our total population only grew 20 percent.

What benefit do we derive from locking up 20 times more of our young men and women than we used to? How are we any better off with a correctional population as large as New York City's total population? Does it make any sense at all to talk of "jail as a deterrent," given those numbers? If we can't build cells fast enough to house the armies of young law breakers, just how have we convinced ourselves that it is working?

But the waste of money represented by our prison construction binge is only a tiny piece of the issue. Worse are the lifetime of hopelessness, the devastated families, the parentless children, the cycle of lawlessness repeated in the next generation and the complete waste of human resources that occurs when you send someone to prison.

As a society, we seem unable to break our futile addiction to "punishment," "harsh punishment" or "punishment that'll really teach 'em a lesson."

We aren't stupid or blind; we acknowledge it wouldn't ever work on us personally, of course, but still we hope that maybe "kicking some sense into them" by ratcheting-up the penalties will work for "those others."

That had to have been the thinking behind our usually responsible City Council's decision last month to double the fines for speeding. Their reasoning is all-too-familiar and is just as flawed as ever; an exercise of illogic in three acts.

Act One. We face a problem of an increase in some variety of crime: speeding, driving drunk, tagging public spaces with ugly graffiti, using mind-altering drugs, taking weapons onto school grounds, sexually abusing children ... the long list of behaviors we want to stamp out with stern punishment gets longer every day.

Act Two. Our elected officials, bowing to public pressure, take decisive action to stem the problem. They increase the penalties. If $100 fines haven't solved things, let's try $200 fines. If one year in prison doesn't end smoking weed or using speed, let's up the ante to five years. If 10 year sentences don't quash sin, lock the sinners up for life. Better yet, let's reinstitute the death penalty!

Act Three. To our bafflement, crime is not eliminated. In fact, our prisons are overflowing, our courts are overwhelmed, our criminal classes more defiant than ever.

Police officers look the other way rather than enforcing laws that aren't working. Discriminatory application of justice starts occurring, because it proves impossible to chop off every offending hand. So the public outcry is renewed: "Do something!" The spiral is downward. No nation on Earth spends as much on fighting crime as we do, with less success.

Look, it's time we started looking for better ways. Prison doesn't work, it makes things worse. Building more of them may keep a few construction workers busy but has no benefit otherwise. The folly of spending more and more to accomplish less and less cries out for saner voices willing to advocate better approaches. Where should we look?

For starters, can't we dream up any punishments besides jail time, fines or seizing automobiles? Many societies throughout history have figured out alternatives, so if we haven't, we can't be trying very hard. What corrections experts have long explained is that punishment only works when it's swift, fair and certain.

But we lock up drug users while dealers get off; we hammer street junkies smoking crack and wink at dignitaries snorting cocaine; we send low level couriers to prison for 15 years and applaud big time narcotraficantes who launder their ill-gotten riches through legitimate business fronts.

And if we can't think of anything to do with law breakers besides locking them away, at least can't we use that time to prepare them more effectively for life when they get out?

Until we get serious about stopping, not punishing, crime, we'll be condemned to suffer our own Dantesque form of punishment: forced for centuries to watch millions of our precious tax dollars get flushed down the cosmic toilet.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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